By Rosemary Penwarden

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

The CANA (Coal Action Network Aotearoa) organising team knows a LOT about coal. We’ve put thousands of hours into researching companies, mines, transport routes, shareholders and maps. All in our own time. But it’s a rare thing for the media to ask a grassroots group for any substantive comment.

On the other hand the coal industry seems to be getting more media time recently, like here on TVNZ (although we did get a little reply in), here on Newstalk ZB. It’s partly down to Patrick Phelps, current coal spin doctor, aka CEO of Minerals West Coast. He’s even managed to get a regular slot on RNZ’s “Nights with Bryan Crump,” where he has been given a platform to promote coal, unchallenged.

Patrick’s early media training with the NZ Broadcasting School has held him in good stead for his current career. He’s a slick operator and somehow the fact he’s a “professional” seems to be attractive to media.

coal schill Patrick phelps talks to TVNZ at a coal mine

Paid coal schill Patrick Phelps talks to TVNZ at a Waikato coal mine.

Schilling for a substance that’s burning up the planet is his day job, but haven’t we passed the “both sides” rule when it comes to climate change? That fully paid “professional” status seems, to media, to trump those who are fighting for the future of the planet – in their own time. They seem to love his gig.

Using the tricks of the tobacco industry, Patrick makes coal into the down-home-grubby-but-necessary stuff that any right-minded Kiwi would agree we can’t do without. The milk we drink, the out-of-season vegetables we eat, even our toothpaste, has coal somewhere in its manufacture. Coal keeps the lights on and our houses warm when the lakes are low.

This  all sounds quite rational until you hear the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who told ministers from 40 countries at a climate conference in Berlin last week that “Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction.” He added: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.” 

The  farmers in Northland suffering more floods after a protracted drought are now talking about climate change. The whole country is suffering a third round of floods in just a short two months, while Europe burns. 

There is nothing rational about burning coal in 2022. 

One of Patrick’s arguments, that NZ’s contribution to worldwide climate breakdown due to coal is so small it doesn’t matter, is cowardly and inexcusable. It’s like me saying my personal tax contribution is so small I might as well not pay it.

Patrick says coal underpins the economy. That’s what they said about slavery back in the day.

Which brings us to ask: why is coal still being mined here? The biggest reason is that coal’s true cost – to the land, to the atmosphere, to our health – is not factored into its price. If it were, coal would be priced out of the market instantly. As it is, companies like Bathurst Resources and Talleys (which together own the West Coast’s Stockton mine, the country’s largest) can still turn a profit whilst offloading all those externalities onto the rest of us. 

Bathurst is even planning to open a new coal mine in Southland so Fonterra can keep burning it and both companies can maximise profit at our expense. That coal is “already sold” says Bathurst boss Richard Tacon, making  a mockery of Fonterra’s insistence that it’s moving off coal. 

Coal’s true cost is something the government could fix with the stroke of a pen, but instead it has adjusted the country’s transition off coal to suit Fonterra’s timeline – 16 years from now. And Patrick Phelps’ latest piece of PR insists we need even longer  to adjust to a coal free economy. 

Yup, they also said that  about slavery back in the day.